Rap and hip-hop, on the other hand, were not a part of my growing up, but have become part of our cultural soundtrack. Certainly, rap is as strong a part of the American experience as blues or jazz. While I find most of hip-hop's incarnations to be violent beyond necessity, and absurdly hostile to social institutions and positive roles [again, I'm typical of my generation], I do appreciate that it accurately captures a cultural perspective, even if it is rendered in a medium of rage. However, that's not all that rap was, is, or can be; and I often think of the example set by one of its progenitors and what he has attempted to do to take a powerful musical force and present it as a means for growth, self-awareness, and redemption.
It may be my fondest memory of the my first full day as a resident of New York City. As classes had yet to begin at the original General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, I had an entire day without anything scheduled. I could go wherever I wished and spend as much time as I wanted savoring the city life. Since my budget was about 75 cents a day, that meant I did this on foot, as I had to choose between a subway token or a meal. [Usually a potato knish with mustard from a pushcart.]
There was much that was aural and colorful that collided with my consciousness during that walk over to 5th Avenue down to Bleeker Street. I prided myself on being a sophisticate, since I had been a habitue of the Bohemian section of Cleveland, had performed in the underground clubs, had bad poetry and record reviews published in the free newspapers, and had a subscription to the Village Voice. However, I began to realize that I was little more than an Ohio hillbilly. Everything I saw, heard, or otherwise encountered seemed new and brilliant. Even the clothing was original to anything I had yet seen. I have never felt so Mid-Western. I'm surprised I didn't walk about staring up at the skyscrapers.
Two things stand out about that day, both involving "radical American poetry" [better known as "rap"], which was the newest trend in music and one born from the urban reality of those hot, summer streets. The first was "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which was the ubiquitous tune played on the oversize portable stereos, the so-called ghetto blasters, of that era, inevitably carried in defiance and pride by young men. The second was a poster I spotted somewhere along Greenwich Avenue; actually it was a series of posters, rendered in bold colors, one after the other.
"Street punks tried to kill him. The CIA tried to buy him off but he beat them at their own game to become...The Godfather of RAP: Kurtis Blow".
That was some serious hullabaloo, especially for someone of whom I had never heard. Clearly, Kurtis Blow was worth some attention. The only problem was, in the days before Internet search engines, one had to rely on a slower information network. When it dealt with the newest forms of street music, the source was Delmar, one of the seminary's maintenance crew.
Delmar, his friends, brother-in-law, and some co-workers, were not only aware of rap and its forms, but attempted on Friday evenings to create the music's spontaneous free verse in impromptu competitions. It was an exhilarating thing to witness, especially as facility with language is something prized throughout history and that which transcends cultural barriers. Listening to them compete, and hearing of the DJ scene in the city, I learned of Kurtis Walker and his rise to serve as the forerunner of what would become the dominant form of popular music for the next generation.
Walker was born in Harlem in 1959. Since Harlem youth of his generation had a narrow collection of vocations from which to choose in order to escape serial poverty, Walker experimented with the two most popular. The first, music, was realized when he'd serve as the DJ for his mother's parties and, as he became more practiced, for parties at his elementary school. He would even go so far as to construct, at the age of 13, a false ID good enough to permit him entrance into some of the popular dance clubs in the city so that he might observe the techniques and styles of the professional DJ's.
The second vocational opportunity was with illegal drug sales. His musical interest permitted him entrance into Harlem's High School of Music and Arts, but his marijuana business got him kicked out. He then enrolled in a less specialized area high school, but his PCP business got him kicked out. Realizing that he was an intelligent and talented kid, albeit with an interest in less commendable forms of entrepreneurial endeavor, one of Walker's teachers talked him into taking the GED, which he passed. This permitted him entrance into the City College of New York.
By the time he was making a reputation as Kool DJ Kurt, Walker was becoming bored with the moribund music scene in New York. In order to spice up his presentation, he began to compose his own verses and speak them over and in-between the mainstream music that he was spinning. [Note: Walker started his DJ career when vinyl records had yet to be replaced by CD's or digital recordings; he and the other professionals literally spun the disks on turntables.] It is a gross understatement to acknowledge that this caught on rather strongly; soon every other DJ would be doing the same thing. In fact, it was expected that every DJ worth employing would be able cleverly to lace verses about romance, poverty, social justice, yearning, and all of the other emotions and desires common to world poetry into the music they played.
So, on some rather simple and inexpensive equipment, and not being daunted by the fact that he could neither play a musical instrument, read music, or carry a tune very far. Kurtis Walker, now known throughout the city as Kurtis Blow, would invent the most influential form of music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Radical American poetry, born of street parties, poverty, ingenuity, and personal ambition, would ride on the technology of the era and be realized through innovative techniques such as turntablism, scratching, beatboxing, and the "sampling" of instrumental tracks from more conventional music sources. It would continue to develop, too, as "gangsta rap" and Hip-Hop would refine, or disturb, the themes and styles.
Recognizing a good thing, Mercury Records signed Walker to an exclusive contract in 1979, thus bringing the music and poetry of street parties into the mainstream. [So mainstream, Walker would even make a Christmas album.] His biggest hit, "The Breaks", would be the first rap song to enter the top forty on radio playlists.
Using his popularity, he would become a music producer and oversee the development of important artists such as The Fat Boys, Run-D.M.C., Russell Simmons and Wyclef Jean, who came to be known as the "Sons of Kurtis Blow". [If you don't know these artists, ask your kids or grandkids. Trust me, they're famous.]
Since rap and its descendants seem best known these days for the appreciation of less noble aspects of the human condition, it often surprises people to discover that Walker was, and is, a devout Christian. So much so that, at the height of his professional demands, he sought and received ordination in a non-denominational Christian church in 1994. Seeking to unite his art and his faith, and wishing to present a more wholesome, violence and profanity-free type of hip-hop, he then established The Hip-Hop Church of Harlem, a witness that continues to proclaim the Gospel in ways that capture the energy of the urban experience.
While he has had health challenges in recent years, as he noted in 1980, "Rap is ours now. Ain't nobody taking it away", a statement that testifies to its multi-generational appeal. Given that popular network television shows and movies feature rappers as actors, that music's most successful producer [and clothes designer and husband to the biggest current star in pop music] is a rapper, and even kids in New England prep schools blare urban rhythms from their dormitory windows, it's safe to say that "radical American poetry" is not about to leave anyone's consciousness.
In the last few years there has been a growing movement to have Walker nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in recognition of how Walker and the subsequent rappers continue to stretch the definition of popular music.
All of Kurtis Walker's hits may be found online, in both audio and video formats. All of his recordings, including his Christmas album, are also still in production and, nowadays, downloadable. It may not be to everyone's taste, but hip-hop is now as much a part of American music as is that of Glenn Miller, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain.
An aside: The previously-mentioned Grandmaster Flash's song, "The Message", is probably, after some of the anthems of Bob Dylan, the most eloquent protest song of the 20th century. While it can be found on line, the reader is warned that, unlike Walker's street poetry, GF's language can be visceral.